The Cats return 18 of 22 starters from last years' squad, which includes all 11 starters from a young and often mistake prone defense.
The 4-8 record should help this squad rebound as this unit will be hungry and out to prove that they are a better defense than what they showed last season.
If the Cats are going to have success, it's going to have to start on the defensive side especially in a few areas.
First, the defense must put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and force them into making quick decisions. Letting any QB sit in the pocket and get comfortable is a recipe for disaster so UC has to make them pay for being under center.
Second, turnovers have to be created as a result of pressure. It's no secret that when you create turnovers, you provide better and easier scoring opportunities for your offense and you are able to take teams out of what they want to do. If the Cats can do this, wins will come a lot easier as well.
Lastly, the pass defense is going to have to improve. If no pressure is given by the defensive front, then the defensive backs are on an island with no help. The defense did a good job stopping the run but that was due to the fact that teams found it easier to throw the ball downfield instead. On third downs it's crucial that the defense can defend the pass and get off the field so that the offense can dominate time of possession.
Also keep in mind that the only way the Cats can provide more blitz packages is if the defensive backs can cover WR's one on one more effectively so field awareness is going to be important.
Although Derrick Wolfe, Walter Stewart and J.K. Schaffer will grab all of the headlines, this unit must make a name for themselves in 2011.
On offense the Cats should be just fine as the core of the most potent offense in the Big East returns.
Scoring is not an issue for this unit which led the Big East in that category as well. Zach Collaros is entering his senior year having hopefully worked out the first-year starter kinks from last season.
There will be two major keys that this unit must do if the Cats are going to be successful. First, the turnovers have to go away. Regardless of how many yards and points that the Cats put up last season, potential scoring drives were killed due to the amount of turnovers that were committed. After being one of the best teams in the nation two years ago at protecting the ball, the Cats slipped to next to last in the country in turnover margin. Coach Jones has put a much needed emphasis on protecting the ball this offseason so hopefully that hard work will pay off on the field.
Lastly, the offensive line must give Zach time in the pocket. Too many times, pressure was put right in the face of Zach Collaros. No matter how good you are, a QB is only as good as the protection that he has upfront from his line. If Zach is given time in the pocket, the chances of making mistakes will be cut down and positive yardage plays will be created as a result. With Pead hopefully running for 1,300 yards or more this year, it will definitely take a lot of pressure off of the QB position.
While the offense and defense command attention, games are really won or loss based on the play of the special teams units. The Cats did a decent job in this area last season for the most part and the hope is that this unit can be much better in 2011.
With the addition of Mr. Football in Ohio Akise Teague possibly returning kickoffs and punts, it could provide a much needed spark that the Cats need to win the field position battle. It would also take the load off of DJ Woods from returning and give him a much needed rest to focus on the offense.
Punting and Field Goal kicking will still be a must for the Cats and I believe there will not be much of a drop-off if any with the departure of Jake Rogers.
No question that the spotlight is going to be on second year head coach Butch Jones. His ability to improve on the areas mentioned is going to be the key to his success this year and beyond.
Obviously, with another year of learning his system the Cats should be much improved.
Continuity is a big part of college football and it is a welcoming thought to also know that many if not all of his assistant coaches are returning for a second year with him as well.
Bottom line is that this is going to be a make or break year for Coach Jones. Any support that was built up for this program before his arrival could all be wiped away with another subpar season.
The pieces are in place to be good and I think that he knows it but I think that he is using the phrase ‘cautiously optimistic'. This team is not far away and if Coach Jones can keep them disciplined and mistake free, then this will be a tough team to beat.
Of course the BE coaches have picked UC to finish fifth in the league this year but that may not be such a bad thing.
If you remember, Cincinnati was picked to finish second last season and was also picked to finish around fourth or fifth the two previous years before that.
Flying under the radar is a good thing because it can keep you hungry and focused on the goal at hand. Maybe the Cats were reading their press clippings too much last year and got caught up in the early season hype.
One thing is for sure that the pressure will not be on this team nationally to be good but expectations are really only what you make of them.
There are going to be two early games to focus on if the Cats are going to be good and that would be Sept. 10th at Tennessee and Sept. 21st against NC State.
These early tests are going to truly expose what this team has. Tennessee has struggled as of late but it's not easy to walk into Neyland Stadium in front of 100K plus and walk out with a win. A win here could give this team much needed confidence heading into its showdown two weeks later with NC State.
I know that Russell Wilson is gone but the Pack still have a good looking QB in Glennon. He is young, has a strong arm and great instincts but the good news is that it is at Nippert Stadium and NC State has not been a good road team under Coach O'Brien. A couple of wins in those games and the Cats should come into BE play on a roll.
Although Bearcat fans know that I don't like to really make predictions, I'm going to break that and make one right now.
If the Cats can solve the turnover problem from a year ago and improve on defense, this team can realistically finish the year 9-3 or better. Does the team have it to win the Big East?
Of course it does because of the depth, talent and experience but let's just stay optimistic that the Bearcats can win 9 or more games, then we can talk about other possible goals.